The late Moammar Gadhafi reached out through Jewish channels to try to repair relations with the United States during his final decade as Libya’s leader.
“Now it can be told,” writes Ron Kampeas for JTA, the Israeli news service. “For the last decade or so, the Jews had secret back channels to Moammar Gadhafi.
His overtures to the pro-Israel community “began in 2002, when a leader of the Libyan Jewish community in exile, David Gerbi, returned to Libya to bring an elderly aunt to Italy, where he and his family now live. His aunt, Rina Debach, is believed to be the last Jew to have lived in Libya,” says Kampeas.
Gerbi told JTA, “Gadhafi asked me if I could help to normalize the relationship between Libya and the United States.”
That led the pro-Israel community into a “careful relationship with Gadhafi,” reports Kampeas. “After his overthrow by Libyan rebels and his killing last week, the conclusion among many pro-Israel figures in America is that it was worth it, despite the Libyan strongman’s erratic behavior and his ignoble downfall.
The reason: Gadhafi’s shift away from state terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks eliminated a funder and organizer of threats to Israeli and U.S. interests.
Gadhafi’s motives were clear, according to Gerbi: Saddam Hussein was in the U.S. sights at the time and Gadhafi, who already was tentatively reaching out to the West through Britain, did not want to be next on the list.
The Libyan leader agreed to end his pursuit of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and made a payout of billions of dollars to families of victims of the terrorist attack that brought down a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
A key role was played by the late U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a Holocaust survivor and the senior Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. Lantos, with the blessing of the George W. Bush administration, visited Libya five times.
“I am rational enough to recognize that we must accept ‘yes’ for an answer,” Lantos told the Forward newspaper in 2004 following his first visit. “Gadhafi’s record speaks for itself — it’s an abominable record — but the current actions also speak for themselves. He has now made a 180-degree turn.”
Steve Rosen, now a consultant to a number of groups on Middle East issues, was at the time the director of foreign policy for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He said the pro-Israel community decided to not to stand in the way of U.S. rapprochement with Libya because of the relief it would offer Israel, according to Kampeas:
Rosen and Alan Makovsky, a staffer for Lantos, were surprised when around 2002 — the same time that Gerbi was making the case for Libya in New York and Washington — Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, sought them out at a conference on the Middle East in England.
“He kept finding ways to bring us into the dialogue,” Rosen recalled. “It became plain we were the reasons for his coming to the conference. He considered us influential in Washington because we were pro-Israel.”
Rosen took the younger Gadhafi’s case to the Israelis, who gave AIPAC a green light not to oppose Libya’s overtures — but they also counseled caution.
“Most of them raised an eyebrow, saying you can’t trust Gadhafi, but the idea of a rogue state becoming moderate appealed to them,” Rosen said.